A Primer on Power for Women Leaders



Power has a bad rap. It’s okay to talk about how to be a good leader, but most of us are quite uncomfortable talking about how to use power.  More often for women than men, the squirmy feeling evoked by the idea of using power can be close to agonizing.

Power is usually tagged as negative, manipulative or Machiavellian.[1]   The exercise of power is actually morally neutral—it can be used for good or ill.  Absolute power is of course undesirable—we all need the checks and balances that being part of various intersecting human communities provide.

But, to be a successful leader you have to be comfortable with the exercise of power. Achieving this comfort is a crucial developmental step for every leader. In my own experience as a woman leader, in working with and mentoring other women in or assuming leadership positions, I have observed that most women leaders, even the most competent and brilliant, usually need some help with this leap.

So what is power, if we separate it from its negative associations of control, domination and oppression?

According to the Oxford dictionary, power is 1 The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way. 2 The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.[2]

A leader possesses power because she has, by virtue of her position and personal strengths, the resources and capacity to act and to direct the behavior of others. Competence, luck, popularity or a host of other factors may have contributed to gaining that position. Many women express being surprised to find themselves in leadership positions, and typically have given no thought to the exercise of power.  But once in a position of leadership, however you got there, however surprised you may be to be there, you need to appreciate the ways you can and should exercise the power inherent in the position.  That’s your job.  That’s what you were elected or hired to do, and you can’t shy away from it without betraying out those who are counting on you.

Women leaders face complex internal and external psychological challenges that male leaders don’t have to worry about.  It’s not fair, but it’s real and it’s better to acknowledge these challenges and learn how to deal with them than to get stuck on the unfairness of it all.  Essentially, women leaders are in a double bind.  Effective leaders of any gender score highly on a cluster of traits psychologists call “agency”.  Effective leadership in fact requires that a leader possesses these traits.  Agency includes things like being independent, assertive, dominant, controlling, forceful and self-confident. Leaders high in agency makes decisions easily.  Yet even today, women are generally perceived to be and expected to be high in another cluster of traits psychologists call “communality”:  kindness, niceness, interpersonally sensitive, helpful affectionate etc.[3]

Interestingly, the current movement in management to promote hiring practices that acknowledge the value of “soft skills”– interpersonal sensitivity and the ability to collaborate– in hiring may lead to more female hires, but may also trap women in middle management jobs, because to wield power, to be at the top, the agency cluster of traits is required.[4]

Some researchers believe the tendency for women to show communal traits is typical of the female brain, tied to the XX chromosome.[5]  Others would argue vehemently that are the product of socialization and stereotyping.  Many would say this is unfair, prejudiced and sexist.  Unfortunately for the women leader, determined to use the power of her position to accomplish her goals, none of this matters.

I remember when I took over the presidency of a national professional association.  I had worked out my agenda well in advance of taking office.  I had a bunch of specific goals, I knew where I wanted to go and I believed I knew what had to be done. I had a forthright, let’s get it done style, and was impatient with those who disagreed with me. I was not especially interested in their opinions unless I saw them as helping me create the changes I knew I wanted.  Not surprisingly, this bothered a number of my colleagues enormously.  I remember being told by one former friend that he was shocked – it was like I had become a different person.  A subset of mostly male colleagues criticized me publicly for being secretive and withholding, and viewed my presidency as one long betrayal.  I thought it was because I wasn’t that interested in their advice or their hurt feelings. It’s true, I wasn’t.  I learned I am not a consensus builder.  I am too impatient and eager to get things accomplished to kick ideas around in repeated discussions.  I liked working with one or two close allies who saw things the way I did and wanted to move the organization along.  In retrospect, I might have been a more effective leader if I had made an effort to be a bit more “communal”—read tactful and patient– but at the time I simply wanted to act, not attend to interpersonal nuance.

Women leaders need to learn to “thread the needle”.  They must be high in “agency” traits.  They will be viewed more unfavorably than equivalent male colleagues exhibiting the exact same behaviors.  The men will be seen as reliable, confident and masterful, while the woman may often be seen as bitchy and cold.

Powerful women have to strike a very fine balance.  They must be authoritative, self confident and powerful.  Although one option is to accept that they’ll be calling you a bitch behind your back, another, more exciting option is to develop a style that is very powerful but disarmingly warm and respectful. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Meryl Streep are two women who brilliantly present themselves in this manner. So too does the Statue of Liberty.




[1] See, for example, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.  (NY: Penguin Books, 2000).


[2] (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/power)


[3] See “Role Incongruity Theory of Prejudice Toward Female Leaders”, Alice H. Eagly and Steven J. Karau, Psychological Review, 2002, Vol 109 No 3: 573-598 and “Feminized Management and Backlash Toward Agentic Women Leaders” The hidden costs to women of kindler, gentler image of middle mangers”.  Laurie A. Rudman and Peter Glick. J. of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999, Vol 77, No 5:1004-1010

[4] Rudman and Glick, ibid.

[5] See “The Female and Extreme-Female Brain”, John Cookson.  January 4, 2017. Big Think. http://bigthink.com/women-and-power/the-female-and-extreme-female-brain

Prudence Gourguechon MD

copyright 2017

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Comments (2)

  1. Reply

    And two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.

    • Prudy Gourguechon


      Hi. Thanks for your interesting comment. What’s the reference for your point about the traits of taking initiative and driving for results? I’d be curious how they’re being measured. I wonder if women and men tend to employ different approaches to taking initiative and driving for results. I know as a woman leader I’ve had my own technique. Prudy

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